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article imageHerschel Probe sends first mission images successfully

By Michael Cosgrove     Jul 11, 2009 in Technology
The European Deep Space Probe Herschel has sent back its first observations using all its instruments. The spectacular data received includes information on galaxies, star-forming regions and dying stars. Water and carbon were also found.
The European Space Agency, ESA, said that all instruments were working beyond what was expected of them. This indicates that astronomers and other scientists now have high hopes of being able to analyse what will almost certainly be new and exciting discoveries.
More detailed information on the Probe’s launch, equipment and role, and the test photographs are available here on Digital Journal.
One of Herschel’s instruments is the SPIRE, or Herschel’s Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver. Its main scientific objectives are deep extragalactic and galactic imaging surveys and spectroscopy of star-forming regions in the galaxy in which it finds itself and those and those nearby.
These galaxies are so far away that light from them takes so long to get to Earth that sending SPIRE deep into space allows us to capture light and images that were not visible before.
In other words, they are images from the past that help us to understand how galaxies, including our own, were formed.
SPIRE was trained on galaxies M66 and M74 on June 24 at a wavelength of 250 microns. That is its lowest resolution capability, and already the results are better than any received in the past.
The picture below shows the nucleus and arms of the two galaxies very clearly, as well as the dust clouds around them and their formation.. The points of light indicate other, more distant, galaxies.
Herschel SPIRE Image
Herschel SPIRE Image
Courtesy of the ESA
Herschel’s primary mirror, almost four times bigger than any other infrared space telescope ever built, will enable even more impressive results when this, its lowest frequency, is boosted for future images.
The image below shows three views of M74 at three different far infrared wavelengths.
The best results were those taken at 250 microns. That is because all telescopes work best at their lowest resolutions when studying areas at relatively short range. The other resolutions will help scientists to learn more about the properties and nature of the more distant galaxies in the background.
Herschel SPIRE Image
Herschel SPIRE Image
Courtesy of the ESA
In other results, Herschel’s Heterodyne Instrument for the Far-Infrared (HIFI) was used on June 22 to look for warm molecular gas heated by newborn massive stars in a star-forming region in Cygnus called DR21.
The data received revealed the presence of ionised carbon, carbon monoxide and water by analysing the different characteristics of spectral characteristics found at certain wavelengths.
This too is a first, and promises much more information on the molecular make-up of galaxies as Herschel continues its work.
Finally, the Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS) instrument was first used on 23 June.
It studies the evolution of stars into nebulae by studying the processes that go on close to the star and their evolution.
The object of study here was a dying star known as the Cat's Eye Nebula. The gases thrown off the star and the complex wind patterns that result from that process are being analysed in order to understand events so far and the results will permit scientists to predict their evolution, another first.
Herschel is still in its performance verification phase, where the instruments are being tested and calibrated. This process will last until November.
If these results are anything to go by, future data will teach us much more about the make-up of universes and the cosmos than was ever possible before.
It’s an exciting prospect.
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